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Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System

Case study:

Recovery colleges

Recovery colleges are an education‑based approach to supporting mental health recovery through a framework of shared learning and co‑production. Originally developed in the United States in the 1990s, the recovery college model emerging in Australia is based on the United Kingdom model, which launched in 2009 and has grown to more than 80 colleges.

Recovery colleges in the United Kingdom are based on foundational principles and values, including:

  • Co‑production and co‑design
    Recovery colleges aim to break down the clinician–patient power dynamic often found in traditional models of care.
    Course offerings at recovery colleges are varied and developed locally as part of the co‑design process. They can include areas such as dealing with difficult emotions, mindfulness, goal setting, tackling stigma, interview skills and healthy living.
    Courses are delivered by people with lived experience alongside those with professional expertise on the relevant topic.
  • Bringing everyone together
    Recovery colleges bring together consumers, family members, interested members of the community and mental health clinicians to share knowledge, experience and skills to support recovery.
    Recovery colleges are open to everyone; there is no diagnosis required to attend. This approach means no individual is seen as a consumer requiring treatment but as a student who works with facilitators in a classroom to learn about themselves, others, mental illness and approaches to recovery.
  • Education focus
    Recovery is supported when people learn new skills and gain new knowledge. The recovery college model engages students in the familiar educational process of growth and development, rather than a pathology‑based process of ‘getting better’.

While recovery colleges are not a substitute for specialist clinical and therapeutic assessment and treatment, they have shown success in improving outcomes for consumers. Studies from the United Kingdom show the colleges contribute to consumers achieving their recovery goals and improving their quality of life and wellbeing. They are also cost‑effective.

Recovery colleges now operate in other states and territories in Australia, including two in New South Wales, a statewide college in Western Australia and one in the Australian Capital Territory. Victoria has two recovery colleges—the Recovery College (operated by Mind Australia) and the Discovery College (operated as a partnership between Alfred Health and headspace National). These colleges connect and share ideas regularly through a community of practice.

The Discovery College

The Discovery College is a youth‑focused recovery college. Dr Paul Denborough, the Clinical Director of Child and Youth Mental Health Services and headspace, Alfred Health, experienced a recovery college overseas and saw an opportunity to bring the model to Melbourne.

I was a student at a recovery college in England and the training was the best I have received in my professional career. You can’t really understand the power of the model until you have been a student. I was inspired to replicate the model as a way of implementing recovery‑oriented practice in our youth services.

There are four phases of co‑production at the Discovery College (co‑plan, co‑design, co‑deliver and co‑evaluate), ensuring the entire service is built with equal partnership between everyone involved, including people with lived experience. Dr Denborough said that this is an important cultural aspect of the Discovery College.

There is meaningful participation for people with lived experience in the actual work of the Discovery College. People with lived experience are valued professionals, as well as those with other expertise relevant to the operation of the service.

Dr Campbell Thorpe, a psychiatrist and Discovery College facilitator, said co‑production opens up the discussion and thinking around mental health.

Co‑production moves us out of traditional roles, relationships and power imbalances to talk about mental health in new ways. Each experience can influence the other’s thinking and together new understanding and meaning can be formed between us.

Jack, a peer support worker, described the Discovery College as an ‘open classroom’:

Everyone’s a teacher and everyone’s a student.

Dr Denborough said the model, with no referral, prescription of courses or requirement of diagnosis, provides consumers with agency in their engagement with the college.

A critical aspect is that rather than a doctor telling you what you need to get well, you choose what is right for you to help you get better.

Following its launch in May 2016, more than 750 students have participated in some 120 separate courses, workshops and panels at the Discovery College, covering topics such as medication, mindfulness, creativity and supporting others.

The Discovery College operates alongside the headspace Recovery Program, which offers a range of courses including life skills where young people learn how to pay bills, use public transport and cook. Courses at the Discovery College complement the Recovery Program’s life skills courses by supporting young people to negotiate their environment and to understand and manage their sensory triggers with courses such as ‘Making sense of your senses’ and mindfulness.

The Discovery College is closely connected to four headspace locations at Bentleigh, Frankston, Dandenong and Narre Warren, with courses mostly offered at community‑based venues across south‑east Melbourne. In response to the COVID‑19 pandemic, courses are now offered online and weekly ‘Discovery Convos’ are hosted on Instagram, focusing on self‑care, isolation and connection and resilience.

Source: RCVMHS, Interview with Dr Paul Denborough, September 2020; Rachel Perkins and others, Recovery Colleges 10 Years On, ImROC Briefing Paper, Nottinghamshire Healthcare Centre for Mental Health, 2018; Discovery College, ‘How we work’ [accessed 6 August 2020].